By Eric Plaag
I have to confess that I was enthralled with the first twenty minutes of director Takashi Miike’s recent entry into the jidaigeki genre of Japenese cinema. A remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film, Miike’s version of 13 Assassins begins by offering many of the hallmarks of such noteworthy, classic samurai films as Kurosawa’s Ran and Rashomon. Through the testimony of several eyewitnesses who are brought in to appeal for the vengeance of our central hero, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), we learn of the outrageous depravities of the film’s villain, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the half-brother of the current Shogun and son of the previous Shogun, who stands to be untouchable if he is able to return from Edo to his home in Akashi. To illustrate just how violently compelling 13 Assassins is in its opening moments, Miike permits us to witness Naritsugu committing rape, multiple murders, torture (including the amputation of all of one of his rape victim’s limbs), and various other unspeakable acts. In short, Naritsugu is the sort of guy who mischievously plays soccer with his own bodyguard’s decapitated head and believes that “punishment is a master’s duty.”
The film is set at the end of the samurai period in 1844, and it often reads as a last glimpse of the honor that once guided the vanishing species of warriors who had long made feudal Japan great and often peaceful. To combat the evil that will descend upon the land if Naritsugu is permitted to reach Akashi unmolested and thus bring about a return to the times of war, a senior government official pleads with Shinzaemon—the most trusted of this dying breed—to form a team of assassins who will stop Naritsugu before he is unstoppable. Following the formula of many action films—whether about Japanese samurai or renegade American soldiers—13 Assassins walks us through the building of the team, the training of the team, and then the confrontation with the villain and his numerically superior forces. The film attempts to pay homage while also adding the requisite twists that presumably will make it original or at least up the ante on the genre.
It is here—in this reliance upon formula and the demand for genre escalation—that 13 Assassins ultimately devolves into an unmitigated cinematic mess.
Part of the problem may lie in the characters themselves. While Shinzaemon stands out, as well as Shinzaemon’s nephew Shimada, Shinzaemon’s pupil Hirayama, the spear-wielding elder ronin Sahara, and the antithesis to all things samurai, a hunter named Kiga (who may or may not be a forest spirit rather than a man), the remaining assassins are nearly indistinguishable from one another, both in terms of characterization and appearance. They are mere cardboard cutouts whose purpose is to serve as battle fodder rather than vehicles to a deeper understanding of either story or the more significant characters in the film. While this may not seem important early in 13 Assassins, it leaves us numb to their fates when the trap is finally sprung on Naritsugu and his men. In a battle sequence that lasts the better part of an hour, it’s helpful to the viewer to care at least a little bit about one of the two people who are fighting with one another at any given moment.
This is not to say that 13 Assassins does not have its impressive components. The trap designed by the samurai to spring upon Naritsugu is complex, well-orchestrated, and ingenious, sufficiently so to outwit Naritsugu’s smarts and those of his principal bodyguard, an older samurai named Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) who still carries the ax he’d like to grind into Shinzaemon’s back. The effectiveness of the trap’s surprise is therefore believable and amusing. So, too, are some of Naritsugu’s strategic decisions before reaching the trap, as well as the nifty lines he delivers to accentuate the depths of his evil. Confronted on the road with an obstacle that a less crazy man would not attempt to overrun, Naritsugu backs down not because he fears the consequences but because taking a different route would be “more fun.” Then he vanishes from the road altogether, forcing Shinzaemon to exercise patience rather than succumbing to panic, only to see Naritsugu’s superior numbers multiply threefold when he finally emerges.
The battle sequences follow the typical jidaigeki conventions, with swarms of villains surrounding each of our samurai heroes but only attacking singly or in pairs, and with a few noteworthy exceptions, most of the carnage is surprisingly bloodless. That is, until a huge, hidden vat of blood inexplicably explodes all over the attackers and the heroes alike midway through the battle. Perhaps I am not well enough versed in the conventions of samurai cinema, but I found it difficult to understand the purpose of this visual non sequitur, either dramatically or symbolically. I found it equally difficult to understand why the battle itself had to be so ridiculously long, given that the fighting itself offered little in terms of innovation, creativity, or drama. When the forest hunter Kiga remarks near the end of the fighting, “I thought samurai would be fun, but you bore me,” I began to think that perhaps Kiga and I were kindred spirits. Then I lost heart when Naritsugu agreed with this observation by insisting that Kiga was the only man among all of that throng who spoke the truth. Finding common cause with one of the most despicable villains ever portrayed on film is not particularly comforting or entertaining.
I will not say how 13 Assassins deals with the problem of Naritsugu’s evil, except to applaud Miike’s revelation of Naritsugu as the overt, pathetic coward that I fiercely believe all bullies to be at their core. Beyond this, though, I cannot recommend 13 Assassins, if only because it fails to expand either the jidaigeki genre in particular or the action genre in general. I have seen almost all of this before in films that were more compelling, more compact, and more complex. While the vast majority of the viewers of 13 Assassins may be prepared to proclaim Miike the new emperor of Japanese samurai cinema and the heir to Kurosawa’s legacy, I prefer to be one of the first to stand in the midst of the crowd and proclaim, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Theaters and Exclusive On-Demand, 2 out of 5 stars